Lathan Willis would have been forty-four this year if he had been allowed to live his life. He was smart with chubby cheeks and clear bright eyes, and in the right circumstances, he could have accomplished anything in this world, anything he set his mind to. But when he died, I told myself he harbored a corrupt soul. By the time he reached adolescence, he’d be in jail. With the right tools at his disposal, he’d certainly kill. I thought of him as a misfit from a horror film, a child from The Bad Seed or Village of the Damned.
Of course, now I believe differently. No one is inherently evil. There are always the personalities, abilities and the environmental influences. The right or wrong combinations and a dash of luck are what determine the outcome of a life. I can’t deny Lathan Willis lived on the wrong side of the Bayshore Freeway in a neighborhood where a dead dog decomposed day by day to a smear on the pavement, where my purse was snatched twice walking the ten steps to my car.
But still, Lathan would have had the opportunity to succeed in school; he was loved by family, friends and neighbors. With the right influences, he would have moved on and out. But sad to say, we’ll never know. He died just a few months after his sixth birthday, and for almost forty years I’ve regretted being a link in the chain leading to his demise.
Lathan died when he rode a bicycle into an oncoming car. His head struck the pavement. He died instantly, as they say. No one prevented him from riding a ten speed in the middle of the street, because an eleven-year-old was in charge. The eleven-year-old was in charge, because his mother pulled him out of the after-school day care at the community center. And why did she do that? Because of me. Of course there’s always more to the story, the thorny details leading up to any tragedy.
At the end of a typical day, the center reeked of child-sweat and dirty socks. Sand, bits of paper and Play-Doh littered the floor. A white lop-eared rabbit nervously shredded the newspaper in the cage. “Rabbit” is what we called him (or her). I sat in my tiny office ruminating over a dilemma. Every afternoon, two boys pressed their noses against the small square window in the door, watching, while the enrolled children ate their healthy after-school snacks and drank their little cartons of milk. I worried about these boys, a kindergartner named Maurice and his eight-year-old brother, Leonard. Every afternoon, around four o’clock, my co-teacher, Ricky, brought them out napkins full of apple slices, carrot sticks and crackers.
“What should we do?” I asked. “They can’t be begging out in front day after day. Their mother is never going to come to sign them up.”
“Let’s go over there,” Ricky said, so we did.
I checked the doors and windows while he wiped down the tables with bleach and water. Then I locked up, and we walked across the street.
I pressed the doorbell of the small white clapboard house with darkened windows. When there wasn’t an answer, Ricky rapped his knuckles on the cracked wood where the brass knocker should have been. It was half past six. Maurice opened the door. I spotted Leonard at the end of a long hall, framed in the glow of kitchen light. He stood at a stove flipping burgers like a miniature fry cook.
Maurice had us sit at a sticky Formica table set with two paper plates and neatly folded napkins.
“You all hungry?” Maurice asked. “Leonard could make more burgers.”
“It’s nice of you to ask, but no thank you. When’s your mother coming home?” I asked.
Leonard kept his eyes on the frying pan and didn’t answer. Neither did Maurice.
“When’s your mother coming home, boys?” This time Ricky asked the question in a tone that couldn’t be ignored.
Maurice answered in a whisper. “She’ll be sleeping on the sofa when we first get up.”
We watched as Leonard finished frying the burgers. Maurice put out mustard and catsup and placed an open bun on each plate.
“Have your mother come by when she can,” Ricky said as we turned to leave.
“We should be calling CPS,” I said as soon as the door closed behind us.
I thought of a recent afternoon when I’d seen their mother on the front porch shaving her long, loose legs. I’d never seen anything like it.
“She loves her boys as much as any mother. She’ll be home for them.”
“But Leonard is only eight. It’s against the law for the boys to be alone all night.”
“They’re better off where they are.”
We’d had this kind of conversation before. Ricky reasoned that Leonard took good enough care of Maurice. There was always enough food in the house. He’d been checking up on them regularly. If we knocked on doors throughout the neighborhood, we’d be sending a dozen kids off to live in the homes of strangers who wouldn’t love them like family.
If only I could take Ricky’s word for it, that nothing bad would come of an eight-year-old in charge of his brother. I was always being reminded that I came from a different world, a white, privileged world where every mother greeted her children after school with milk and cookies and fathers always brought home their fat paychecks on Fridays. This world was different, and I’d have to adjust or get out.
All I could do was trust Ricky. He was from the community. He was my tour guide, my doorway into a world so different than my own. He was my bouncer, too, my go-to when things got rough. When a bored ten-year-old acted up, Ricky could get him in line. He knew exactly what to say, the right words to elicit a transforming disgrace. “Now you know better than to walk out of here with that Hot Wheel in your pocket. Your mother would be ashamed to know you did such a thing!” And the child would hang his guilty head under the pure weight of his actions.
Surprisingly, the day after our visit, Maurice and Leonard’s mother came to sign them up. She was lovely with her large soft eyes. And those legs. She talked us into letting the boys go home on their own at closing time.
Then as soon as that problem was taken care of, another presented itself. Two siblings were enrolled, a fifth grader and her little brother brother. The Willis kids, Christine and Lathan.
Unlike Maurice and Leonard, these children did not want to come after school. Christine felt she was old enough to stay home instead and watch her little brother. Five-year-old Lathan agreed.
From the start, Lathan threw down his coat instead of hanging it in his cubby. He pushed his snack away and pouted if he didn’t like what was being offered that day. He refused to participate in Play-Doh or puzzles or to sit for the after-lunch story time. He said he was waiting for his sister, but she never showed up.
Lathan took to wandering around the room toppling block structures and hiding the crayons and markers from the craft table. Outdoors, he sailed playground balls over the fence into the adjacent swimming pool, and the children were forced to halt their play until I found a custodian to let me through the gate to fish out the ball with the pool skimmer. He made no friends.
Then, Lathan began to torment a boy named Walter. He called him a “sissy.” He marked on his drawings. He liked to make Walter cry. Walter was the kind of boy who put his hand on my shoulder when I taught him how to tie his shoes. And he always had the nicest, newest shoes, the name brands worn by famous basketball players. He liked to get Rabbit from his cage and hold him in the big bean bag chair. I had shown Walter how to lightly touch Rabbit’s head and build a relationship until ultimately Rabbit could be lifted without kicking. Rabbit’s powerful back legs had scratched more than one child when he wasn’t handled properly.
Walter often held Rabbit in his lap, gently stroking his long floppy ears while I read a story. Sometimes Walter fell asleep, and we left him in the beanbag after returning Rabbit to his cage.
One rainy spring afternoon, Lathan arrived an hour and a half early. He’d gotten into some kind of trouble at kindergarten. His mother had been called by the principal. She couldn’t leave work, and Ricky was summoned to bring him to the center.
As soon as he arrived, Lathan dragged a chair to the back of the room. He held his small arms crossed tightly against his chest. The preschoolers sat at the long tables, removing their forks and napkins from packets. They poked red straws into their cartons of milk. Lathan refused to join them at the table.
“I wish we didn’t have him so early,” I said to Ricky. “His mother should be dealing with him.”
“But he’s here now,” Ricky said.
“Come on, Lathan,” I called out. “Come over and eat lunch with us.” I pointed to his waiting tray of spaghetti, green salad, and a bread stick. Lathan didn’t budge.
“Let’s just leave him alone,” Ricky said. “He had a hard day. Put up his lunch for later.” He moved on, handing out boxes of raisins.
“Lathan,” I said, ignoring Ricky’s suggestion. “This is the last call for lunch. Come and eat or it goes in the trash.” I wasn’t going to save his lunch. It was now or never. I scooped up the tray and held it aloft with both hands. “Last call.”
Lathan turned his chair to the wall as I tossed his lunch into the trash.
“Why’d you do that?” Ricky whispered.
“Because he has to do what he’s told,” I answered in a too-loud voice. “We asked him to eat. Maybe next time he’ll realize that we aren’t a restaurant and he’ll eat when he’s called.”
I looked over to see if Lathan was listening, but it was impossible to tell.
When the other kindergarten children arrived, Walter hunkered down in the bean bag chair. He had taken Rabbit from the cage, and it sat on his stomach with two white paws outstretched. His puffy cheeks twitched as Walter stroked the smooth, short, fur between the ears.
Then, Walter leaned back and closed his eyes. His shoes sat on the floor in front of him. I slipped the rabbit from his lap and returned it to the cage. The other children went to their cots for rest time. I turned out the lights and began to rub the backs of some of the younger children. Lathan was left sitting in the dark.
“You might as well take a nap too, Lathan,” I said.
“Ricky, will you take me out to shoot some baskets?” he called from his end of the room.
I answered for him. “Not until later.”
“Ricky? Would you?” Lathan asked again.
He was playing one against the other.
“Time to rest, buddy. When I come back from the last pick-up, we’ll go out, just you and me,” Ricky said.
“Miss Debbie, I want to hold Rabbit like Walter always gets to do. Pretty please?”
When Lathan spoke in that high sweet sing-song voice I had to turn around to make sure it was him. Never had he called me by name or asked me for anything. He only grabbed what he wanted or cajoled Ricky. For a second I was tempted to answer nicely, to get the rabbit out for him. But no. He was just stalling, being disruptive and mocking me. It was a goddamn game. The child was bad news. He didn’t eat his lunch, and now he was looking for an excuse not to nap with the others.
“No Lathan. The rabbit is put away for now. Stop bothering the children trying to sleep. Go lay down.” I went into my office and closed the door and sat at my desk. I took out the form for the next week’s activity plan from the file drawer.
Later, I couldn’t say when it happened. Ricky had stayed in the main room until it was time for the school-age pickup. I came out of my office when he told me he was leaving. But then I walked out front with him in the drizzle. When I thought back on it, it seemed like only a minute or two. We talked about Lathan, how we’d get through the rest of the day and what we’d say to his mother when she came to get him. Then I went inside and sat in the dark until it was time to get everyone up. It was almost 2:15 when Walter woke to find his shoes missing.
First we searched under the beanbag, in his cubby, in his backpack, and soon all of the children were up looking in the block shelves, in the reading center, under the long tables. Even Lathan peered under chairs and behind doors. He hummed under his breath, looking happy for once.
The children put on their coats and hoods and ran outside in the rain. They dug through the sandbox, searched in the wet tan bark next to the swings, under the wooden climber. “Shoes, shoes, where are Walter’s shoes?”
Eventually Walter found his own shoes. They were in the classroom, in the trash can by the back door. He called me over and I peered in, and sure enough, there they were, awash in milk, spaghetti, and salad.
I turned around to look at Lathan, who didn’t bother to hide a little smile of satisfaction. He was proud of himself, it was plain to see. That was all the proof I needed.
“Lathan, you come over here and get these out.” I knew that I was sentencing him without giving him a chance to prove his innocence, but I could care less. None of the others were capable of such malice. “Get Walter’s shoes out of the garbage now.”
Lathan went out the back door and hunkered by the fence that separated the play yard from the community pool. At least he hadn’t tossed the shoes over the fence like the playground balls.
Now he was grinning. “I’m waiting on Ricky to get back. I’ll do what he tells me to do.”
“You’ll get those shoes now.”
“I can get my own shoes,” Walter offered, but I was already marching across the yard. When I got to Lathan I went behind him and placed my hands under his arms. He went limp. Then all I could do was wrap my arms around his middle and half-carry, half-drag him to the garbage can inside.
The room turned quiet as the other children watched the confrontation. They’d never seen anything like it.
“Lathan,” I said. “You are putting your hands in there. You, not me.”
“Fuck you,” Lathan said.
And with that, I picked him up, and tipped him head-first, upside-down, into the garbage can and held him in position until he finally reached in and grabbed the shoes. When I set him down he flung them at Walter. Then Lathan pulled up his shirt and looked down. There was a dark line across his stomach, a mark from the edge of the metal can. Below, a long scratch with pinpricks of bright blood.
“Look what you did.” His voice quavered as if he was about to cry.
“Put your shirt down,” I said, refusing to feel remorse. Refusing to apologize. But I gulped air as if I’d been the one held upside-down. I needed Ricky for discipline. Where the hell was he? If I made a mistake it was his fault because this was his domain, his territory. Lathan was his boy, not mine. It was past 3:15. Shouldn’t he be back by now? But I was also glad he hadn’t seen my lack of control. Would the marks fade or would they take time to heal? I wanted to examine the skin closely and judge my wrongdoing. I’d have to write an accident report. He might need a tetanus shot. What will his mother say? Will I be fired? On the other hand, I felt I had won the confrontation and in that moment it was all that really mattered. I didn’t reflect on the fact that I had twenty-years and eighty pounds on him and that he had plenty of reasons to hate my guts.
If you had asked me if I treated the children equally, I would have said yes and believed it. I didn’t yet understand that the least loveable child was the one who most needed love. I had a special place in my heart for Walter with the spotless shoes and for sweet Maurice and his burger-flipping brother. Yet for Lathan Willis, I only felt contempt.
Ricky was the one who noticed the open cage door. As soon as he entered the room he asked, “Where’s Rabbit?” Lathan was back in his chair in the crossed-arms mode, waiting to tell Ricky all that had happened during his absence. Walter and I emerged from the bathroom, where we had been sponging off his shoes as best we could.
Ricky said, “Anybody know the whereabouts of Rabbit, tell me now. I mean it.”
“Are we going out to shoot baskets now?” Lathan asked as the school-age children filled the room.
“I’m asking about Rabbit,” said Ricky. “Where is he?”
This time twenty children combed the classroom, the kitchen, the bathroom, hall, and then the wet play yard, even though there was no way Rabbit could have made it through the back door without human help.
When the children ate their pudding cups and graham crackers they listened for scratching under the shelves and behind the cupboard doors. Some took umbrellas out back and poked the sand. All afternoon the search continued in vain.
Eventually Ricky took Lathan out to the wet courts to shoot a few baskets. Lathan lifted his shirt. By then there was only one long scratch.
In the end Lathan got his way. He told his mother all that happened, and she let him stay home with his sister. When she called, she said I was mean to her son, who said the program was dumb and for babies. In the coming weeks we heard rumors of Lathan running with a pack of older boys. More than once I caught Lathan watching us, his angry eyes peering through the square window in the door.
We never found Rabbit. He became someone’s dinner or survived on weeds and garbage, or hopefully found a family who built him a nice big cage. At least we didn’t find his white furry body at the bottom of the pool.
Then summer came and the school-age children stayed all day. More than once I thanked my lucky stars that Lathan had dropped out. After all, what would we have done with him all day when we had difficulty dealing with him for the few hours after school?
I was on vacation when it happened. I had taken the week before the Fourth of July holiday off. I didn’t know Lathan had died until I returned to work ten days later.
The center staff, the parents, almost everyone who came through the door told a version of the story. Lathan rode a bicycle into a car and hit his head. You should have been at the viewing. There was never a more handsome child. He wore a new plaid suit with a vest, a white shirt and a bow tie. He looked peaceful, as if he were sleeping.
When Lathan’s sister came one afternoon, she called him “Little Late.” She told us the neighbors all came running out. Everyone knew the man who hit him. He lived down the street. It wasn’t his fault. He cried. He wasn’t speeding. The Jones Mortuary fixed up Lathan’s face. You couldn’t tell it happened.
I only recently looked up Lathan’s obituary. At the time, I didn’t read the newspaper account of his death. If I had, I would have discovered two facts. The first: His full name was Lathan J. Willis, a man’s name. A name for the future. The second: The accident occurred on July 3, 1976, a Saturday on the long holiday weekend. He would have been home even if he hadn’t dropped out of the program.
I never bothered to find out the exact date or who was minding Lathan that day. Or was it possible for anyone to mind a boy like Lathan J. Willis? I never tried to generate excuses, to search for the loophole that would stave off a lifetime of guilt and remorse. Maybe I already knew that a mere fact couldn’t untangle the perplexity I felt in his passing. Even learning it now changes nothing, nothing at all.